Inda’s Corner: Inda’s Music Time Machine

Forgot to post this here. ICYMI: I finally did that audio essay.

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The Death of the B-Side: New Ways of Experiencing Music

A few days ago, I came across one of Questlove’s essays entitled “How to Find Music You’ll Fall in Love With.” The title is a bit misleading as Quest doesn’t really explain how to find this music. He focuses on the way our access to music has changed over the years and how this access affects our relationship with music. Much of the trajectory he describes perfectly captures my experiences from taping songs off the radio to creating my own mixtapes (even though I didn’t think of them as mixtapes then) on cassettes then CDs. He articulated a lot of what I’ve been wanting to explore for years now when I think about intersections of my love of music, technology and the music industry.

Many of my thoughts come from two places: I’m a late adapter to technology and I sometimes don’t respond well to change (partly because I’m a late adapter and it takes a lot to keep up with technology). A few things to consider:

  • Up until less than 10 years ago, I still made mixtapes on cassettes and made sure I had a dual tape deck to work with.
  • Up until about four or five years ago, I still actively used a Walkman to play cassettes. (I still own the Walkman, but I left my cassette collection at home when I moved.)
  • Up until about a year ago, I actively used a discman, which I also still own.
  • I was still buying CDs last year and remained skeptical about downloading. (Yes, I have some issues with ownership.)
  • I still back up MP3 files on CD in case a computer crashes.
  • Just this past month, I threw away hundreds of VHS tapes I recorded off television. (I kept the ones I bought but can no longer tape from my analog television because of how it must be set up with the digital converter.)

Technology changes much faster than I can keep up with. It’s also put much more at my fingertips, so I can go back and experience these moments I yearned for in my adolescence because I thought I was missing out on something important. In that regard, YouTube has become a haven. When Pandora figured out I liked Tool before I did, I listened to entire albums. When I went for years without buying new music because no money, I found The Mars Volta had released more new stuff after Frances the Mute and De-Loused in the Comatorium. I no longer had to wait until I could afford all those classic rock albums to catch up with Bowie, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

Except for a few things, it’s all out there. AfroPunk not only helped me find other black fans who loved genres other than rap and R&B, but it also introduced me to black artists besides Living Colour who performed outside these genres. I’m discovering new artists all the time who may not have had a shot 10 years ago.

But it’s all too easy. As I write the first draft of this, I’m about 10 days behind in catching up on my downloads folder. Some of it is old music I’m “discovering,” some are paid albums from artists I know and support, but the overwhelming majority comes from new and/or underground artists I may or may not take a shining to. Of all the music I’ve downloaded over the past couple of years, I’ve only consistently listened to a handful of them and completely fallen in love with even fewer.

Perhaps it’s not all that different from the old days. I listened to artists on the radio all my life then saw them on BET by the time I was 12. I had to watch the constant video stream during those days in order to hear some of my favorite music and fall in love with new artists. During my teens, I finally had some disposable income and usually blew it on cassettes. I mostly stuck with R&B out of fear others would make fun of my love of “white folks” music, so it would be years before I would reclaim works like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik and add them to my ever increasing CD collection.

But even then, I noticed changes in how I got my music. You see I collected singles, first as cassettes then as CDs. For a while, singles came with A-sides and B-sides, the B-sides as a second song or song snippets from the album. In many cases, I found myself buying entire albums after buying one or two singles because I knew there were three or four songs I already liked. Afterwards, I was more likely to buy albums from that artist regardless of whether or not I had previewed them. In an odd way, this may have contributed to my love of album-oriented music. When I first actively started buying classic rock, I started with The Best of… and Greatest Hits. This is how I got into Jimi. The collection gave me a taste, but I found that an entire album put together with intent and purpose had a magic and charm like no other.

The second-song B-side was replaced by the instrumental version. Then the industry got wise and replaced that with the remix, alternative and extended versions. It’s genius really. Those of us who already have the album may still get the single for the version we don’t already have. Some of us are really that obsessed. It’s this obsession that keeps me downloading freebies and hoping to make that all-important new discovery.

Still, it’s not the same. When I travelled everywhere with my discman, I had to make decisions about which discs to put in my carrying case for the week and switch them out to make room for the next batch. Now with my MP3 player, I have a couple of full-length albums on hand, some all-time favorites from the past couple of years and a few artists I’m attempting to give a chance before ultimately giving the heave-ho or choosing a couple of singles I like.

Perhaps this is part of the reason I’ve embraced one aspect of hipsterism: vinyl collecting. My location in a college town has put me in proximity to several record shops, so I can go digging and make a few finds every once in a while. To clarify, I didn’t jump on the hipster bandwagon. I actually bought my first vinyl album almost 10 years ago because it wasn’t available on cassette or CD. I got a copy of Gerry Woo’s Listen to My Heartbeat (then later Labelle’s Pressure Cooking) with the hope I could find a turntable somewhere and enjoy.

However, this awakened something in me. I got Minnie Riperton’s Love Lives Forever both on vinyl and cassette because, again, no CD. While at home, I borrowed a turntable, listened to my albums and found my father’s stash of albums and 45s. When I moved and got my own place, I found a new turntable and some speakers. I then began collecting, mostly bargain deals for under a dollar. I’ve grown a small but respectable collection of albums mostly from the 80s but also from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I sometimes hit gold just by taking a chance like I did with Randy Crawfords’ Raw Silk and sometimes I get an album that’s not as good as I thought it would be like Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence and The Police’s Synchrocity. (I only listen to one or two songs on each album.)

In the middle of digital downloads and CDs, I still go through the crates hoping to find something I’ll love. I’m the type of person who likes to hold physical objects in my hand. (Again, the ownership issues…) Many artists do not bother to put together albums anymore, especially with it so easy to get only the singles you want without having to buy an entire album. In a way, this makes it much harder for me to fall in love with the music. I know that much of this is necessity because many artists work with the only resources they have and it is difficult to put together fluid and coherent albums with just spit and glue. Some do but some do not.

Perhaps it isn’t really the fact that A-sides and B-sides no longer exist for albums that make it difficult to fall in love with them these days. These days, we have a totally different listening experience. Because it is somewhat easier to post on YouTube and set up on iTunes, artists have to focus on showmanship in addition to their craft and unfortunately the craft sometimes takes a backseat.

Sometimes I miss looking at album covers, going through liner notes and having to go through a process in order to listen to the music I want to love. Since I have so many ways of listening to music, my experience is fragmented. I can listen to vinyl and flip records one minute then click a file to open in my Windows Media Player the next. I can hear the differences in the way vinyl and cassette sound as opposed to CDs and digital downloads.

Through all this clutter and noise, I’ve managed to find some music that I truly love. Perhaps in its own weird way, getting back to the way I used to do it has helped. I no longer peruse through the used CD section like I used to do at Wherehouse Music in college. I search through blogs and follow knowledgeable sources on social media who have similar tastes and hip me to artists I might like. I even connect with a few artists looking to grow their fan bases, which in its own way gives me that sensation of reading liner notes and knowing a real person but blood, sweat and tears into this work.

We may no longer have B-sides, but we still have options. It may take a little more effort to find music to fall in love with, but it exists. Even if it takes some time, that journey just may open up new worlds of music discovery and spew a few gems along the way.